Microsoft Band as a Running GPS?

I never thought a reported Microsoft “wearable” would have a prayer of becoming a decent alternative to something like a Garmin or Suunto unit for runners, but when the “Band” was released last week, it became clear that the device offered much more than the average Fitbit or knockoff. Onboard GPS, to be specific. Coupled with some other very interesting features like alerts and Cortana integration, I thought I would give the unit a try, especially since my trusty, half-decade-old Garmin 305 slowly disintegrates. I can barely hear its anemic alert tones anymore, and one of the up/down arrow function buttons has stopped working entirely.

Get some!

Getting my hands on a Microsoft Band wasn’t easy. My local store was sold out the day after release. I played with an in-store unit and wasn’t that impressed, but I didn’t have a lot of time with it. When my little girl wanted to visit the Lego store in the mall the next day, the wife and I stopped by the Microsoft Store and, as luck would have it, the guys inside said they’d just received a shipment not 20 minutes before. They had one size small left. The wife wanted that. The supervisor said he’d grab another one if he could – I’m guessing they had one on hold for an employee sale – and so we walked out with two of them.

Pair it up

The pairing process was quick and flawless for my wife on her Lumia 920. It was not flawless for me, but it turned out that somehow, despite being head geek in the house, I was missing an update to the phone OS. Installing that made the pairing flawless and quick for me as well. I’ll get to the details of the geekery below. For now, I want to hit on the Microsoft Band’s capabilities as a running GPS.

Not Too Shabby

To get your run recording started, you swipe left from the main screen, and your (customized) tile set goes by. You click on the little runner guy to do any kind of GPS-enabled activity tracking, running, hiking, biking. This is a bit one-size-fits-all for now, but I’m sure updates will differentiate between these activities.

After you tap the runner icon, you get the screen below. You simply press the “action” button, which is the little one on the right side of the unit, where the little arrow is pointing on screen. Do that, and it goes into GPS search mode. The first time I did this, it took about 2 minutes to get a GPS lock outside. That’s entirely typical in my use of many different GPS devices. When I was making these pictures, from the 2nd floor of my house, the GPS lock was happening so quickly (presumably because the unit remembers where it was last located on the Earth, making it easier to acquire signal for subsequent uses) the unit locked so quickly I couldn’t actually get a photo of it with my phone.

After GPS lock, the unit prompts you to hit the action button again to begin and go. To be fair, while it’s acquiring GPS, it also lets you begin your activity, and it will, in effect, catch up with tracking once GPS is locked. I never do that because moving GPS units, in my experience, take a lot longer to lock on signal than stationary ones. If you can’t wait 5 seconds or a minute for the GPS to lock, you’ve got problems I do not have.

Once locked and started, the main information screen looks as below. The watch does not go dark (to sleep mode or “watch mode”) while you’re tracking an activity. What you see below is calories burned (flame icon), heart rate (heart icon, doy) and overall time (stopwatch icon). That’s it. There’s no way to customize or change this main information screen. If you are a serious running, like me, this is inadequate, and it also shows the wrong information. (Even if I were interested in calorie burn, I wouldn’t need to see this until after the whole run were complete.) I will state right here that I don’t think these choices are stupid on Microsoft’s part: This band is after all aimed at a mass market. But they do make the unit a bit less alluring for a more hardcore runner.

EDIT: Apparently, you’ve been able to edit this screen since launch by hitting the little pencil icon while configuring the tiles through the Microsoft Health app on your phone. I didn’t notice this until months later, and I thought it was an update, but apparently, I just missed it.

Be not completely bummed, ye runners, because there is a little more information available. Above, you see a little blue “handle’ at the top of the screen. Swiping down on that gives you a second screen of information, like a windowshade. You see that below. It shows GPS status (pointy pin), overall pace (clock between vertical lines) and total distance (line segment on right). Since I’m not moving yet, my pace is a bit slow.

Unfortunately, this screen is also sub-optimal for runners. Devoting half of it to GPS status is the first downright dumb choice I think I’ve seen. (If you must show this, simply showing a full or hollow pinpoint icon would do the job. That’s how the heart rate icon shows lock-or-not on the same unit.) But I don’t think even casual runners care to know if GPS is still locked, since once GPS does lock, it’s highly unlikely to come unlocked, at least long enough to matter. Much better on this screen would be lap pace for the prior/current mile.

Finally, even if you prefer this overlay, it’s temporary. It winds itself back up after a few seconds to revert to the screen above. Oh, and a note, you will not be using the touchscreen at all with gloves, even those really thin little stretchy knit ones from Target. I wore those for my test run because it was 47 degrees and 20 mph winds with 40 mph gusts.

You can pause your run by hitting the action button. It brings up the screen below. Hitting resume, doy, resumes the activity tracking. Tap end to finish up.

I haven’t tried this yet, but the help manuals indicate that, while paused, you can use the rest of the band, send a text via Cortana, whatever, and then go back to the run and resume.

EDIT: I have since done this several times, and it works. You can dictate a text or do something else via cortana then go back to the activity.

On the trail

So, I took the Microsoft Band out for my weekend long run to test alongside my usual unit, a trusty old Garmin 305 (with heart monitor strap). That unit is old but it is rock solid and reliable. I run a couple thousand miles a year, typically do 13-16 marathons as well. My PR marathon is a 2:55, and my typical, reasonable-effort marathon is about 3 hours. So, my experience with these units should be viewed from the mindset of a dude who’s on the end of the bell curve for mileage and GPS unit expectations. Not way, way at the end, but definitely in the thin part.

This is a typical screen that I use during my runs and races. I use lap pace calculated at half-mile intervals instead of “instantaneous” pace because vagaries in GPS signal make those instantaneous pace values jump all over the place. They’re really unreliable. A smoothed lap pace over a quarter or half mile is a much better measure of how you’re doing at any given point in a run. I also keep average pace up because that’s what matters for me over the full course of a race or run. Distance, lower left, is obvious, and so is time. The Garmin unit lets you keep several “pages” like this and, mid run, you simply hit a button on the right (or choose autoscroll) to look at a different page. On one of those pages, I have almost the same layout except in place of one of these measurements I use heart rate. In mountain and trail races, not only does GPS accuracy go so far out of whack as to make pace readings useless, the effort you use on steep climbs is much better measured by heart rate than by pace.

15 miles with the Microsoft Band

So, out the door I went, into the teeth of the wind. I started both units at the same time, within a couple seconds of each other. The Microsoft Band felt funny to me during the first day of wearing it, but by the time I went for this run, I was completely used to it. I no longer fidgeted with it like a puppy wearing a collar for the first time. The unit is much lighter than the forerunner, so it didn’t bother me at all.

The heart rate stayed locked pretty much the whole time as far as I could tell, which was impressive given that it relies on an optical unit on the wrist, and my wrists are really, really skinny, as well as nothing but bone and a little muscle. I don’t fill the band up very well, so the fact that it kept locked should be a measure of how well the tech works.

Running alerts

When you hit each 1-mile split (I assume this would be km for those who choose metric distances in setup), you get a very nice vibration alert on your wrist, and a new screen that shows the mile in a circle on the left, with the time in large type on the right. This is very well done and I much prefer the haptic alert to the jingling from a Garmin. The Garmin has gotten quieter with age, so that I rarely hear the alerts anymore, and during a race, you hear a zillion identical jingles around every mile.

I don’t have a picture of that alert because, well, I was running, and it doesn’t last long, just a few seconds.

Unfortunately, at this point in the Band’s life, there’s no way to customize the split distance either. However, for most people, the 1-mile split will probably be sufficient.

GPS accuracy

The GPS accuracy is better than the old Forerunner. This is not a surprise to me since the Garmin unit is running a GPS receiver that’s probably a decade old. As a result, it’s got more noise and tends to zigzag ever so slightly on the recorded points that determine distance. This garmin typically reads about 1% long in reasonably open sky running. For this run, it read about 0.8% longer than the distance recorded on the Microsoft Band. I’m going to give the win on this to the Microsoft band, without a doubt.

For what it’s worth, I don’t expect GPS units to be much closer than 1-2% to a normal race course. I chortle mightily at those folks who complain that marathons are “long” because their GPS doesn’t agree with the measured course. Measured as they are by wheel, race courses are much more likely to be what they say they are, and GPS reception being what it is, the noise even from a good unit can easily “add” a tenth or quarter mile to a marathon course. Expecting otherwise is silly.

Heart rate accuracy

I wish I could report better results here.

Here you see the run details as automatically synced to the companion app on my Windows Phone. The average heart rate reported is 154, while the Garmin reported an average heart rate of 147. The Garmin is correct. That’s the heart rate I would expect on this run, which wasn’t moving too fast. That’s 80% of my max HR. Right in the zone of easy pace (but a little too high, in fact, for this long run. I should have slowed down, but I felt good and I was COLD.)

For comparison, the 154 heart rate reported by the band corresponds more correctly to my running a pace of about 6:45 per mile for 6-10 miles. That’s 83%. I’ll run a 3 hour marathon at an averate of 85%, or around 157. Working my butt off to get closer to 2:55, 87%, or 162 beats per minute. I top out around 175.

This may be close enough for average fitness joggers, but it’s far too inaccurate for enthusiast runners. The 3% difference might not sound like much, but it equates to 20 seconds per mile or so, depending on conditions. That’s a big difference. The only saving grace here is that it reads high. If it reads high and you base your effort on that, you’re just going to come in a bit slower than you would like. For training, that’s probably fine. For a race, it might be aggravating, but it’s not horrible and if you ignore it and run harder, so be it. If, on the other hand, it read 3% low, you’d be in serious trouble during races, where overshooting your effort by that much will definitely lead to a major crash and burn.

Other run info

The companion app offers a pretty decent look at the run information. It’s all transmitted automatically via Bluetooth from the band to the phone. Elevation data is in all likelihood not generated by triangulating GPS signal but by shooting the GPS track coordinates against publicly-available elevation databases that cover the whole earth. This is the right way to do it, and it yields highly accurate elevation information.

Tapping the map brings up a full sized map which you can zoom and pan. Tapping the graphs switches between splits, heart rate, and elevation. This is a bit unintuitive, and those tiny icons do the same job, but they’re hard to hit. In general, Microsoft did not employ its own Modern app development standards to this companion app, and the resulting, somewhat confusing UI, with a lot of wasted screen space, is the unfortunate result. Microsoft clearly aped an Android design here – possibly even just developing the thing first for Android and iOS, then ported it to Windows Phone without correcting the UI problems that iOS necessitates. (How else to explain software stuff like back buttons on a phone that has a hardware back button?)

This software is an OK start, and it does the syncing job well, but it needs a lot of polish and – dare I say – a recommitment to Windows Phone UI design standards in order to become better than “meh.”

Other alerts

I typically run with my phone packed in a little flat “fanny pack” or “bum bag” in the small of my back. I don’t use it for tracking, music, or anything, actually. The phone is there for emergency use only – and maybe occasional use as a camera such as when the local beavers do something interesting, or I find a particularly nice snake.

For this test, I left Bluetooth running on the band and the phone, and as a result, I got haptic (vibration) alerts on my wrist when an occasional text or email came into the phone in the pack. I found this handy. With a quick glance I could ignore the alert or give it a fast read. When my wife texted me to tell me she and the girl were heading for haircuts, for example, I didn’t have to dig my phone out of my pack to know that, and it took me all of 2 seconds to read it on my wrist while running. Calendar reminders should show up while you run. Don’t forget to schedule the good things:

Very cool.

Very, very cool.

Cortana integration with Windows Phone is perhaps the killer app on this device. After my run, when I am sweaty and gross, I typically have to fumble my phone out of the pack, and I leave it in its plastic freezer bag while I let the wife know I’m done, almost home, etc. No need for any of that here. While paused or after completing the activity, you can simply hold down the action button on the band, activating Cortana, and speak commands to her. Sending texts this way (as well as finding out about traffic, starting a music playlist, etc.) works very well, with one caveat.

Make sure you set your phone’s screen sensitivity to normal!

Lumias have a setting (high) that is great for using the phone with gloves on, but it screws up Cortana integration with the band for the following reason: The phone actually comes out of sleep and the screen turns on when you’re using Cortana and the band. Any taps on the phone will be registered. When your Lumia’s touchscreen sensitivity is set to high, your pocket, purse, bum-bag, whatever, is highly likely to tap the phone screen while you’re doing your thing with the Microsoft band, effective “ass dialing” it mid task, and messing up what you’re doing. I was swearing mightily at the band before I figured out that it seemed to work flawlessly when the phone was across the room on a countertop, but horribly when in my pocket.

Battery life

I headed out the door before I knew how to get a precise reading on battery life. (Turn on “watch mode” for the band, and when you’re charging, it’ll show % of charge.) The band was “mostly” full when I left, by the little battery icon, and “mostly dead” when I got back, according to the same icon.

I was initially a bit worried about this, because it seemed like the band had lost most of its charge during a 1:50 minute run. However, within only 15-20 minutes of charging (the time I first noticed the % charge indicator on the band) it was all the way up to 70%. That suggests to me that I probably had about 50% battery life left when I was done. I’ll update later on GPS-enabled battery life, but I think the unit will probably have enough juice to get a 5-6 hour marathoner across the finish line. If you’re worried and want max battery life, turn off Bluetooth and see what you get.

Other tidbits

The Microsoft Health cloud platform that is the back end for the Band and the companion app is already cloud-connected to a couple of very handy fitness services. You can link a Run Keeper account to it, and the band/app combo will automatically ship your run data to runekeeper.com. It doesn’t send the GPS data, just the summary. But given that Microsoft Health does not have a Web presence yet (meaning all your interaction with your runs, etc. is phone only). I would like to see this improved, but I don’t know if the data uploaded to Microsoft Health’s cloud by the apps even includes the GPS data. Uninstalling and reinstalling the app would probably give me a clue, since the local data would go byebye on uninstall.

The integration with MyFitnessBuddy is more satisfying for me. They’ve got a good Windows Phone app and it automatically receives your activity/calorie burn from the cloud (Band to app, app to Microsoft Health cloud, Microsoft Health cloud to MyFitnessBuddy cloud, MyFitnessBuddy cloud to MyFitnessBuddy phone app). This worked flawlessly for me. It yields a nice caloric intake/burn screen on app as well as on a live tile.

Early conclusion

If you are more than a recreational runner, the Microsoft Band will probably not (yet) replace your trusty Garmin. If you are a hardcore trail runner or ultra runner, there’s no way you’re giving up your trusty Suunto or Garmin. However, for the $200 price point, given the likely upcoming updates and the existing built-in technology, this is probably more than enough GPS for the mass market. Throw in sleep monitoring, step monitoring, calendar, text, weather, finance, and other alerts, and this unit will probably become one of your favorite bits of tech. If you’re on an Android phone or iPhone, you won’t get the Cortana bit – and that really is probably the best part. But you will get almost everything else. And anyway, you can get yourself a nice, clean, smooth, malware-free Windows phone for $100 or under and have a best-in-class connected wearable experience.

I’ll continue wearing this on my right arm and the Garmin on my left. And I’m totally fine with that.

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2 responses to “Microsoft Band as a Running GPS?

  1. Pingback: Your Microsoft Band Probably Won’t Get You Through a Marathon | Run Ranger·

  2. Pingback: I’m afraid the MicrosoftBand is a Lemon | Run Ranger·

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